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CNN Interview with John Ashcroft

Aired November 20, 2001 - 15:21   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, I'm Judy Woodruff, and I am joined now by the attorney general of the United States, John Ashcroft. He joins me from the Department of Justice in Washington.

Mr. Attorney General, welcome.

JOHN ASHCROFT, ATTORNEY GENERAL: Judy, it's good to be with you.

WOODRUFF: We appreciate your joining us.

We've just been watching the ceremony where the president has renamed the building -- the Department of Justice building after former Attorney General the late Robert Kennedy. And I have to ask you, Mr. Attorney General, does it feel strange at all to name this building after someone whose family name is fairly synonymous with liberal Democratic politics, something you've been fighting against your whole political career?

ASHCROFT: Well, Robert Kennedy was an outstanding individual devoted to individual liberty, to ridding the United States of organized crime. His intensity of enforcing the laws is the kind of model that I think we want to follow in the Justice Department. Just as he made it clear that he wouldn't tolerate organized crime that he would use every tool in the culture available to fight it, we're using that as an inspiration to fight terrorism and to seek those who sought to destroy, well, thousands of American lives, innocent lives here in terrorist attacks.

We think that we'll do better work inspired by the model of devotion and intensity and dedication that Robert Kennedy was to America, and we think that we have a lot in common with the kind of example he set in respecting the dignity of individuals, the rights of all citizens, the safety and security of the American society.

WOODRUFF: Well, Mr. Attorney General, I don't know if you're aware of it or not, but today one of Robert F. Kennedy's daughters, Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, at another ceremony, said publicly that her father would not have approved of some of these broad new powers that the administration is exercising now in the war against terrorism. In fact, she said -- I'm talking about power giving police and prosecutors more power, she said, "These are things that undermine civil liberties. My father would not have approved."

ASHCROFT: She may have said that. We simply are not going to tolerate terrorists coming to this country to kill thousands of innocent Americans. The president of the United States has looked me squarely in the eye and said, "John, I want you to prevent that."

We're going to use every tool in the American judicial system and justice system to protect innocent lives in the United States of America, and this president needs to have those tools, and will exercise them effectively as well.

WOODRUFF: Well, Mr. Attorney General, as you know, there are many questions being raised about these tools, in particular about these tribunals that we know very, very little about. How can Americans be confident that justice will be done in these secret tribunals?

ASHCROFT: Well, first of all, the president of the United States should have the right to protect and save American lives by asking that terrorist war criminals be tried in military courts; something that's been done in every war.

ASHCROFT: Can you imagine the spectacle of capturing a soldier- terrorist in Afghanistan, bring them back with a publicly paid for, high-profile, flamboyant defense lawyer on television making it the Osama Network, sending signals to the terrorist around the country? That's not really what our judicial system is about.

The terrorists won't be able to hide in the caves of Afghanistan and they won't be able to hide in the legal cracks of the American judicial system. These are not people who are American citizens. They are people at war with the United States. Throughout history, war criminals have been tried in war and military courts. This war is no different. And this president ought to have the right to protect American lives in having such commissions.

WOODRUFF: But you know there are well-established protections for people built into the Constitution, built into the laws in this country. I mean, some people are literally asking whether you believe that the existing criminal justice system is not sufficient to not only prosecute the people who should be prosecuted, but at the same time protect their rights.

ASHCROFT: Well, we're not talking about Americans here. We're talking about alien terrorists who have sought to kill thousands of innocent Americans. And we're not talking about the criminal justice system, we're not talking about the violation of the normal criminal laws. We're talking about war criminals who have violated the international law relating to waging war. War criminals have always been tried in military courts. President Roosevelt did so. And President Roosevelt said it would apply even to American citizens.

But this president has been far more conservative in his effort to protect the lives of Americans. And he's simply said that foreign alien terrorists who commit war crimes will be tried in military courts, which is the way we've always handled war crimes.

And what a tragedy it would be to bring people back into the United States for trial and to make juries at risk, court houses and cities terrorist targets because these people are on trial. Reveal important secrets of America's defense in the kind of normal court system when we're not talking about violations of our criminal law. We're talking about violations of war crimes. And they've always been tried in military courts and it's appropriate that this president save American lives by having that as one of his tools.

WOODRUFF: Could some of these people end up being executed, Mr. Attorney General? ASHCROFT: In the past, individuals who were convicted of war crimes were executed; some of them anyhow. And when President Roosevelt found people sneaking into the United States from German submarines in World War II, he convened a similar commission. They were tried here in Washington. He specified that the trial be held in secret, and some of those individuals were executed, some were not.

WOODRUFF: My colleague, Aaron Brown, has interviewed some attorneys who represent some of the people who are being detained. And among other things, they're asking questions like this: Is it all right to hold somebody for six or seven weeks without seeing a judge? And if they do see a judge, we don't know whether they've had an opportunity to call legal counsel.

ASHCROFT: Well, every individual being detained by the United States of America has had the opportunity to have counsel. I can assure you of that. That's our practice. We don't deprive individuals of the right to see counsel.

Some individuals are -- no individual is being held that has not been charged with a violation or who has not been adjudicated by a judicial officer to be a material witness, and being held as a result of an order by a judge. So we're not holding people who are not violators of the law.

Now, some are being held in the immigration system and some in the criminal justice system. But all of them are adjudicated or at least charged as violating the law, or else being held by judges who say that their testimony is so material that they are being held as witnesses.

WOODRUFF: How many are in detention right now?

ASHCROFT: Well, we have a variety of kinds of detention, and we're working on developing a total, which we'll be releasing shortly. We won't have a total including all the people in state and local custody, because that's not something we can do. We've released all the information about this. There are laws that prevent us from some kinds of releases. In other words, we're not going to release a black listing. This is not some situation where we're going to try and mar the reputation of individuals.

But individuals who are being held have a right to contact their attorneys, and we've released information about them.

WOODRUFF: All right. But just quickly, Mr. Attorney General, it's our information that they can make only one legal call per week. And for those who didn't have an attorney going in, it's very difficult for them to find an attorney once they are detained.

ASHCROFT: As a matter of fact, we have -- for those who are involved with immigration violations, we have provided them with a list of volunteer pro bono attorneys, so that we're assisting them in getting legal counsel. And it is part and parcel of the kind of respect we have for rights. We're doing everything consistent with the Constitution and with the legal framework that respects those rights.

But I have to make one thing very clear: We will not allow individuals to continue terrorism activities from their jail cells, to either send messages or communicate with other cell members or other individuals. That's simply something that we must do to protect the safekeeping and the well-being and the security of the American people.

WOODRUFF: So when some critics look at what is going on and they say, "The administration is, in fact, alienating much of the Arab or Muslim community in the United States by these detentions, by holding these people when, in fact, the U.S. ought to be trying to bring this community closer to get more information from it."

ASHCROFT: There is absolutely no question that we want all individuals in this country, everyone, to help us with information about who might be in our culture to destroy the culture instead of to help it and to reinforce it.

ASHCROFT: And we do ask individuals for help and information. And frankly, I would hope that everyone who is here, whether they're here as a guest of America or they're an American citizen, would decide to help us with information. Those who are here and don't decide to help us are making a very, very unwise choice. You either have to decide to work against terrorism and help in the fight against terrorism, or you remain silent in the face of evil, and that's a choice which I don't believe they should make.

WOODRUFF: Mr. Attorney General, I'm going to change subjects and ask you about anthrax. We know two more Senate offices today -- there have been trace amounts of anthrax found: the offices of Senator Edward Kennedy, Senator Christopher Dodd. Your colleague in the Cabinet, Secretary Tommy Thompson, is saying today that based on this new information you're getting, he believes that it is domestic; that the source of these anthrax-laced letters is most likely domestic. Do you share his view?

ASHCROFT: Well, the FBI recently released a profile which indicated the kind of person, person talented in chemistry, familiar with the Trenton, New Jersey, area, person who tends to be a loner; there are other characteristics. Since we've released that profile, we have been the recipients of a number of tips. We believe that they're valuable, we're following them up. And while we can't say with any conclusive sense of finality that this is a domestic setting, the kind of profile that's been indicated, and the kind of tips we're getting would tend to lead us in that direction.

WOODRUFF: How would you explain the fact that of the members of Congress who have received these letters, they've all been Democrats? I mean, I'm not asking you to go into the mind of whoever's doing this, but is that part of what is leading you to this conclusion?

ASHCROFT: I believe that a wide variety of factors. It appears that these all came from the same individual. The nature of the substance found in the letters tells you something about the qualifications in terms of science that a person would have to have -- the capacities they'd have to have, in order to help generate this noxious and toxic bacteria. All of those factors went into the profile and, frankly, the profile was released in advance of the most recent letter to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. So, I don't know that partisan politics played a part of developing that profile; I think the other factors did.

WOODRUFF: Finally, Mr. Attorney General, do you believe you're any closer to identifying the source of these letters? ASHCROFT: Well we certainly have some better leads than we had a few days ago when the FBI hadn't first put out its profile. And we'll have to wait to see and measure the extent to which these leads turn out to be either productive or nonproductive.

WOODRUFF: All right. Attorney General of the United States John Ashcroft. We thank you very much for talking to us after this renaming ceremony of the Justice Department Building. Thank you very much. Good to see you.

ASHCROFT: Thank you.

WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.

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